So we’re in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Where boys drink beer, sing down-with-America songs by night and throw socialist theories and cuss words at each other by day. Here, girls go to sleep wearing dangerous amounts of kohl, have the most enviable collection of nose rings and do street plays. Everyone wears kurtas, everyone shouts slogans, everyone knows how to run a country. Sinewy old politicians watch TV in air conditioned cubicles and shudder at thought of these Fab India ninjas bringing the government down. And no, this is not the most unreal or confusing bit of Anand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa.
The biggest problem with Raanjhanaa isn’t the fact that Sonam Kapoor’s evolution as an actress means she now has a sum total of three expressions. Neither is it that according to Rai’s worldview, JNU and common sense are mutually exclusive. Raanjhanaa is a confusing watch because it takes every cliche out of the ’80s’ Bollywood Bible and tries to fit them within a contemporary context. So there’s poor-boy-meets-rich-girl, wrist slitting, angry fathers slapping daughters who profess their love for someone unsuitable, Indian gods, runaway lovers, temple bells, Hindu-Muslim strife and Holi songs. And all this is stuffed into what seems like a silver screen adaption of the rise of AAP where Arvind Kejriwal is a tall, broad-shouldered kurta-stud with heartbreaking dimples like Abhay Deol’s. (Only, one hopes Kejriwal fares better in real life than Abhay does in Raanjhanaa.)
Unlike the promise in the trailer, Raanjhanaa is not a melt-in-your mouth love story though it does start on those lines. Kundan is a precocious ten-year-old in Varanasi. He is the son of a Hindu priest and one day, he’s sent to collect donations for a Ram Leela show. He shows up at a Muslim college professor’s house and spots a little girl doing namaaz. In the tradition of vintage Bollywood, Kundan falls in love with the little girl, named Zoya. Sonam Kapoor as Zoya grows up to do what girls and women do best in Bollywood: smile at friends, boys, pillars, trees and everything at which one can smile. Kundan, now an adorably scruffy Dhanush, falls head over heels for her. In what is probably the best part of the film, he follows her around, drools, stares and Zoya, like most teenage girls, leads him on. All that is believable if you ignore how Sonam Kapoor looks too outsized for a 14-year-old.
Zoya and Kundan eventually fall in love, but her parents are horrified at the thought of their daughter having a Hindu boyfriend and send her off to study in Aligarh.
Eight years later she returns, and Kundan is still in love with her but she has fallen in love with her JNU buddy played by Abhay Deol. What follows is pretty mind-numbing but the reason to bear it is Dhanush’s acting. The Southern superstar makes a lot of big Hindi film stars look like they need to go back to acting classes in his Bollywood debut.
Discussing the glaring loopholes in logic in the film would require us to give away spoilers. So all we’ll say is that Raanjhanaa‘s plot is riddled with inconsistencies. For example, Kundan and Zoya take a train, then a bus, a shared van, a tractor, and all sorts of conveyance known to Indians to reach Jalandhar in order to get in touch with Abhay Deol. A phone call would have been an easier option, but opting for the pragmatic choice, one song and thirteen exquisite profile shots of Kapoor would have to be sacrificed. In the Bollywood scheme of priorities, that must amount to blasphemy. Several such Bollywood inanities botch the film which wasn’t entirely without promise. The best of AR Rahman’s score is spent in the first half of the film so unfortunately there is nothing to distract you from the dragging, illogical second half.
However, Raanjhanaa is worth a watch. Not just for a delish Abhay Deol sighting or the Hauz Khas-worthy kurta designs, but for Dhanush. The Tamil actor plays everything from a 15-year-old to a twenty-something with stunning conviction. It’s spectacular how Dhanush perfects a naive, smitten, small town teenager’s body language right to the wide-eyed, silly smile. The fact that he is far from being conventionally good looking works to his advantage.
Sonam Kapoor looks great and deserves an applause for having agreed to appear in the same frame as a brilliant Dhanush in the film’s climax, because it’s a scene that demands expressions that don’t feature in her textbook of acting. As for Deol, ladies, he makes khadi kurtas look gorgeous. The supporting cast, which includes a compelling performance by Swara Bhaskar as Kundan’s childhood friend, Bindiya, is superb.
Raanjhanaa is no Yuva, and it’s definitely not a Rang De Basanti. What it possibly could be is a list of what not to do for Kejriwal if he wants to survive politics.